Low-carb diets have had their moment in the spotlight. Is their 15 minutes of fame up? That would be a shame. After all, tons of scientific studies and real-world evidence have shown us that controlling carbs is one of the best ways to manage your weight, keep your heart healthy and increase muscle mass. Many nutritionists, though, don’t agree. In the 1970s, the American Medical Association decried low-carb diets (which actually have been popular on and off since the 19th century) as dangerous, and demonized dietary fat as the cause of soaring obesity and heart-disease rates.
In a way, we understand their reasoning. Most of the misconceptions about carbs are based on some type of fact, albeit misinterpreted, misappropriated or just plain mangled. For instance, fat is more than twice as calorie-dense as protein or carbohydrates, containing 9 calories per gram compared to 4 for carbs and protein. Nutritionists used to see it as a simple numbers game, but that was before we understood just how healthy fats can be, how desperately the body needs them, and about the potentially damaging interplay between carbs and insulin within the body. Given all the misconceptions that arise in the mainstream media and our affinity for disseminating the truth about diet and nutrition, we figured we’d do some low-carb myth-busting. Read on to iron out any remaining confusion about following a low-carb lifestyle.
1) Myth: Going low-carb means you can never eat carbs ever. This is categorically false. A low-carb diet allows plenty of room for carbs, and M&F HERS encourages you to eat them. We recommend you consume about 1 gram of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day on workout days, dropping to 0.5 gram per pound of bodyweight on rest days. This means that a 140-pound woman can eat 140 grams of carbs on workout days. (To get an idea of just how much food that translates to, see the chart at right.)
The types of carbohydrates you eat and when you eat them are equally important. The majority of the carbs you consume should be slow-digesting, a category that includes foods such as brown rice, legumes, oatmeal, vegetables, whole-wheat bread and, to a certain degree, fruits. The only time we veer from this advice is in the postworkout window. The goal then is to provoke a massive wave of the anabolic hormone insulin to fuel muscle growth and recovery, and to do that you should eat fast-digesting carbs such as jelly, sports drinks, and white bread, potatoes and rice.
Here, then, is an example of what the carb portion of a typical workout day looks like on a low-carb diet:
1 Since a 140-pound woman is technically allotted 140 grams of carbs, the remaining 15 grams come from other foods such as peanut butter and cottage cheese.
2) Myth: By not eating carbs, you’ll be hungry all the time. That’s also false. It? s true that carbs are the easiest source of energy and eating them increases serotonin levels, a reward system built by evolution to encourage consumption of foods that provide fast, ample energy. But once you adapt to a low-carb diet, your body won’t miss them.
Eating carbs may make you feel good, but they won’t keep you full for long. Fast-digesting carbs exit the stomach and are absorbed by the intestines quickly; the resulting insulin spike sends glucose to muscle cells, the liver or fat stores, then your body wants more. Protein and fat take longer to process, keeping your digestive system busy and you satiated longer.
Protein intake has been shown to reduce hunger by another method as well. A study conducted at University College London had subjects eat three meals: one high in protein, one high in carbs and one high in fat. Scientists found that subjects who consumed the high-protein meal were three times as satiated as after the high-carb meal and twice as satiated as after the high-fat meal. The cause? Peptide YY, a compound produced in the gut after protein consumption that tells the brain you’re full. Subjects eating the protein meal had significantly higher levels of peptide YY in their bloodstreams than the others. When low-carb dieters get a greater percentage of calories from protein, they actually experience less hunger than those eating a “normal” higher-carb diet.
RELATED: How to Make a High Protein Breakfast
3) Myth: You don’t have any energy on a low-carb diet.This myth persists because it contains a minuscule nugget of truth. Glucose is the easiest thing for the body to use as fuel, and all carbs are eventually broken down into glucose. So when you eat ample carbs, your body doesn’t have to work very hard to find fuel from other sources, namely fat. Remove or reduce the amount of glucose you provide your body and it’ll have to step up fat-burning, which means it must call on special enzymes that break down fat.
The problem is your body is an extremely efficient machine, and it’ll slow the production of hormones, enzymes or other compounds that it doesn’t currently require in large quantities. When you switch to a low-carb diet, your body may not have an adequate amount of fat-burning enzymes available to break down enough fat to supply all the energy it requires. The result? Sluggishness and lassitude at least until your body increases its production of fat-burning enzymes.
Ample evidence indicates that this low-energy state is temporary, however, lasting only until the body adapts. A review of research published in 2004 in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism states that not only have hunting cultures such as the Inuit survived for thousands of years on low-carb diets out of necessity but “submaximal endurance performance can be sustained despite the virtual exclusion of carbohydrate from the human diet” as well. This is supported by a study conducted by researchers at California State University, Fullerton, who examined the effects of a carb-restricted diet on 15-rep strength in a variety of exercises. They found that a low-carb diet had no effect on the amount of weight subjects could lift.
4) Myth: Get ready to gorge yourself on bacon and cheese. This was Atkins’ selling point, but it’s just not going to work over the long haul. While low-carb diets do allow for an increase in the number of calories you obtain from fats, your health and physique will be better off if those fats are healthy. You can occasionally indulge in bacon or full-fat cheese, but for the most part aim to eat healthy fat from sources such as avocados, grass-fed beef, olives or olive oil, peanut butter, tuna and wild salmon.
5) Myth: All those fatty foods you’re eating now will lead to heart disease.
We’ve all had the message that fatty foods increase our risk of cardiovascular disease drubbed into us, but research shows saturated fats don’t have as much of an effect on health when eaten in place of carbs.
A review of research published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism in 2005 revealed that limiting carbs and replacing them with any type of fat — even the so-called “bad” saturated variety — resulted in both lower triglyceride levels and an
increase in “good” HDL cholesterol. In fact, saturated fat elevated HDL cholesterol more than unsaturated fat did. The review also found that the major type of sat fat in beef, chicken and pork doesn’t raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels.
RELATED: Tips For Making Chicken and Bacon Salad
In case you’re still worried about eating red meat, other data support its safety. Researchers at the University of Western Australia School of Medicine (Perth) increased subjects’ red-meat consumption for eight weeks and compared their markers of oxidative stress and inflammation, two signals of heart disease, to those who maintained their normal diets. No difference was seen in the markers but subjects who ate more red meat had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a powerful inflammatory factor that’s closely linked to heart disease. It appears, then, that replacing at least some carb calories with fat can make you healthier.
6) Myth: Following a low-carbohydrate diet will cause you to lose muscle. This myth has traceable roots as well, though they’ve been twisted by misconception. When you first begin a low-carb diet, you’ll lose a little of the water stored in muscle tissue, making your muscles look slightly less full. This is because fewer dietary carbs are circulating and the fat-burning pathway isn’t yet fully operational, so your body will use the glycogen stored in muscles as fuel. Glycogen normally pulls water into muscle cells, so with reduced glycogen levels, you also get reduced water levels. As your system adapts, however, it’ll restore glycogen levels and your muscle volume will return to its previous state. At no time will you lose actual muscle tissue; in fact, following a low-carb diet will help boost muscle growth while you get lean, primarily because
you’re taking in more protein, which spurs protein synthesis and burns more fat for fuel.
A study published in a 2002 issue of the journalMetabolism showed the power of a low-carb diet and its effects on body composition. Scientists at the University of Connecticut (Storrs) had 12 men switch to a very low-carb diet. At the end of six weeks, subjects had experienced significant decreases in bodyfat and an increase in lean body mass, despite the fact they hadn’t trained. You read that right: Eating a low-carb diet can actually increase muscle mass even if weightlifting isn’t involved.
7) Myth: Low-carb diets are a short-term solution. Here’s the bottom line: If you follow our dietary advice, you’re most likely already on a relatively lower-carb diet. It’s very difficult to eat clean and improve your physique while still consuming massive amounts of chips and cookies. Those of you who eat clean and love to train already know this way of eating isn’t a quick fix, it’s a lifestyle. Once you commit to it, you’ll experience all the benefits we’ve discussed: healthier arteries, increased strength and muscle mass, and a leaner physique. And that’s no myth.